Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen


A fascinating book.

The opening sentence:-

When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades.

This book tries to…

…examine why some people become capable of cruelty, and whence a loss of empathy inevitably has this consequence. This book goes deeper into the subject than I have gone before, by drilling into the brain basis of empathy and looking at its social and biological determinants, and it is broader too, by having a close look at some of the medical conditions that lead to a loss of empathy.


My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy’.

The term evil is just lazy – it says nothing, and worse, it seeks to close down discussion. It’s tabloid explanation. And, of course, a term at the heart of religious philosophy:-

Religion has been singularly anti-enquiry on the topic of the causes of evil. For most religions, the existence of evil is simply an awkward fact of the universe, present either because we fall short in our spiritual aspirations to lead a good life of because such forces (e.g., the Devil) are in constant battle with divine forces for control over human nature…


If I have an agenda it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the word ‘evil’ as an explanatory tool, and , if I have moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I feel this book has made a contribution.

Baron-Cohen makes a good argument for loss of empathy as the route to understanding a range of extreme behaviours, including Borderline Personality Disorder or are Psychopathy. He demonstrates the following main points:-

We all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. Part of what science has to explain is what determines where an individual falls on this spectrum. I have pointed to some of the genetic, hormonal, neural and environmental contributory factors…


At one end of this spectrum is zero degrees of empathy…


Bowly’s remarkable concept of early secure attachment can be understood as an internal pot of gold… When we fail to nurture young children with parental affection we deprive them of the most valuable birthright we can give them, and damage them almost irreversibly…


There are genes for empathy…Environmental triggers interact with our genetic predispositions, and scientists are starting to discover particular genes that in far-reaching ways influence our empathy…

Finally, a bold statement that…

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda.

This is a book which raise profound and sometimes uncomfortable questions. The reviews highlight some interesting issues. Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph, for instance:-

This fascinating and disturbing book is an examination of why some people are viciously, violently cruel to others.


Zero Degrees of Empathy is a strange amalgam of scientific sophistication and philosophical naivety. The detailed findings on which Baron-Cohen bases his conclusions about which parts of the brain do what, and his identification of the particular neurological pathways on which the capacity for empathy depends, are as dazzling as they are surprising.


But the basis for his insistence that a lack of empathy is the root of all evil is curiously crude. He claims that if you can fully recognise others as having feelings like your own, then you must empathise with them, and this will mean that you are as incapable of harming them as you are of harming yourself.


…Baron-Cohen seems committed to denying the existence of that particularly nasty form of sadistic cruelty that depends on the perpetrator recognising his victim’s feelings and homing in on those that he knows will hurt his victim most.

This criticism, though, downplays an important point which Baron-Cohen makes:-

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. There are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response. Both are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t empathised at all.

Certainly, the book does not have – nor claim to have – all the answers. However, it does provide a useful and potentially productive reframing of our understanding of human cruelty.

Well worth a read.


Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow


There have been many good books on human rationality and irrationality, but only one masterpiece. That masterpiece is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

So says William Easterly, writing in the Financial Times. Having just finished this book, I would add that not only is it a masterpiece, it is an eminently readable and comprehensible masterpiece. Easterly again:-

He achieves an even greater miracle by weaving his insights into an engaging narrative that is compulsively readable from beginning to end. My main problem in doing this review was preventing family members and friends from stealing my copy of the book to read it for themselves.

Galen Strawson, in the Guardian, describes the themes of the book:-

An outstandingly clear and precise study of the ‘dual-process’ model of the brain and our embedded self-delusions. We apprehend the world in two radically opposed ways, employing two fundamentally different modes of thought: “System 1” and “System 2”. System 1 is fast; it’s intuitive, associative, metaphorical, automatic, impressionistic, and it can’t be switched off. Its operations involve no sense of intentional control, but it’s the “secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make” and it’s the hero of Daniel Kahneman’s alarming, intellectually aerobic book. System 2 is slow, deliberate, effortful. Its operations require attention. System 2 takes over, rather unwillingly, when things get difficult. It’s “the conscious being you call ‘I'”, and one of Kahneman’s main points is that this is a mistake. You’re wrong to identify with System 2, for you are also and equally and profoundly System 1. Kahneman compares System 2 to a supporting character who believes herself to be the lead actor and often has little idea of what’s going on.

Easterly points out that:-

In Kahneman’s words, System 1 is “indeed the origin of much that we do wrong” but it is critical to understand that “it is also the origin of most of what we do right – which is most of what we do”. The “marvels” of System 1 include an ability to recognise patterns in a fraction of a second, so that it will “automatically produce adequate solutions to challenges”. An even more remarkable accomplishment is “expert intuition”, in which after much practice a trained expert, such as a doctor or a firefighter, can unconsciously produce the right response to complex emergencies.


Kahneman is one of the fathers of the field of cognitive biases, and most of the book is indeed spent on the mistakes made by System 1. We get probability and uncertainty terribly wrong, usually leading to overconfidence and mistaken decisions. We react to identical situations differently depending on what is already on our minds. Even worse, we don’t know what we don’t know.

As Galen says:-

We think we’re smart; we’re confident we won’t be unconsciously swayed by the high list price of a house. We’re wrong. We’re also hopelessly subject to the “focusing illusion”, which can be conveyed in one sentence: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it.” Whatever we focus on, it bulges in the heat of our attention until we assume its role in our life as a whole is greater than it is. Another systematic error involves “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule”. Looking back on our experience of pain, we prefer a larger, longer amount to a shorter, smaller amount, just so long as the closing stages of the greater pain were easier to bear than the closing stages of the lesser one.

As Oliver Burkeman writes in the Guardian:-

The biggest challenge this posed was to economists, most of whom assumed that people were basically rational and selfish and acted in their own best interests. The work that won Kahneman the Nobel showed otherwise. As Richard Thaler, another leading light in the revolution that became known as behavioural economics, told an interviewer, Kahneman and Tversky’s research meant that “rationality was fucked”. Kahneman, on the other hand, likes to say that you’d need to study economics for years before you’d find his research surprising: it didn’t surprise his mother at all.

I have to agree to some extent with Easterly one very minor reservation:-

Kahneman’s endorsement of “libertarian paternalism” contains many good ideas for nudging people in the right direction, such as default savings plans or organ donations. But his case here is much too sweeping, because it overlooks everything the rest of the book says about how the experts are as prone to cognitive biases as the rest of us. Those at the top will be overly confident in their ability to predict the system-wide effects of paternalistic policy-making – and the combination of democratic politics and market economics is precisely the kind of complex and spontaneous order that does not lend itself to expert intuition.

However, I would wholeheartedly agree with Easterly’s final paragraph:-

But I hope that [this] one quibble does not deter readers because this is one of the greatest and most engaging collections of insights into the human mind I have read. Kahneman’s book will help you Think Slow about what Thinking Fast gets very wrong, and what it gets very right.

It’s no understatement to say that this might be one of the most important books you read for some time.